I have a great poker face. And no, not learned through playing poker. I would lose my hand for sure. I don't know when I developed the ability, a gift from God, as a friend of mine labeled it. Maybe. Or maybe a side effect of incarceration and working with those in the prison system (where you hear it all and see it all and just when you think you can’t be shocked anymore, surprise again). I also worked for years as a nurse and in the field of social work, where tough conversations often take place. Where the most intimate thing you could disclose to a person often gets revealed. You learn over time not to let your face and your feelings communicate.
So when she made her way sheepishly to the front of the room to talk to me and prefaced the conversation with “There is something I need to tell you,” my posture shifted just slightly with a silent reminder to prepare myself. She was about to disclose her “worst thing.” That moment from her past that she can’t leave there. The one she relives and replays like lyrics you’re sick of hearing, but can’t get out of your head. The part that causes her shoulders to slump and her eyes to hold sorrow that is visible even when she smiles.
She needed to say it out loud and let it hang in the air between us. I could see the hint of fear in her eyes, and if the room had been a little more silent, I would have heard the racing beat of her heart. She thought she needed to tell me her worst thing.
And the realization of what she really needed made my own eyes well with tears. It was the question behind the question. Not really about that terrible moment from her past. Deeper rooted. Carried from her childhood. Longing to be answered.
Do you accept me? Am I still worthy of love?
We live in a society of selective mercy. We subconsciously decide in our minds who is worthy of compassion and who is just a tad too far beyond it. And it’s a dangerous thing to decide something that is not ours to judge.
I began to pray years ago that God would help me love people the way that He does and to break my heart for the things that break His. I will never perfect it in this lifetime. Not even close. There are times I wrestle with forgiveness. There are times I experience compassion fatigue. There are times I want to return evil for evil. Or to spew some venomous response when one is doled out to me or someone else.
But I answered her question anyway. I responded from a place deep within that has already made up my mind that I don’t get a vote. A place that has firmly decided that it’s not my determination to make. There is no debating. No wondering. No dialing up a friend to consult. No tallying the wrongs to see if someone has crossed the line too far.
It’s a place that God has answered in my own heart. When I fell too far from grace, or so I thought. When I had run too far from home, too far from warnings that I ignored, too far from the advice of my parents. I used to dislike the story of the prodigal son until I became the prodigal. Until I squandered the blessings I had been given and made a terrible mess of things.
You see, that’s the thing I’ve learned. People often judge others with the same measure they use on themselves. Harshly and with little mercy. They perceive God’s posture towards them as one that is ashamed of their mistakes or their very existence, with His arms folded and His back turned. And nothing could be further from the truth. He is more like that parent that paces the floor waiting for the phone to ring. He leaves the porch light on and the door unlocked. He never ever even thinks of giving up on your return to the realization that you are loved and worthy and nothing could change that. Like the time I saw a photo of my son on social media and I could see his seeking of affirmation. The longing for everything he already is. Deeply loved and worthy. And there is nothing he could do, or say, or think that will ever make me love him any less.
So I looked her square in the eye and answered the question she was really asking.
"There is nothing you could ever tell me that would make me love you any less."
And contrary to what society thinks or what we've been taught to believe, that is how God feels about us all. Even that person who seems the least deserving of mercy.